Montello School Garden

Montello School District students tend to a new school garden in the summer of 2018.

MONTELLO — Kohlrabi sticks on the salad bar and fresh mango on “taco day” are just two examples of how the Montello School District demonstrates to students that good food is not hard to prepare, its new food service director says.

Recent changes to the school menu and the establishment of a school garden in Montello under the leadership of Laci Monroe got the attention of University of Wisconsin-Madison Population Health Institute, too, when it published its report on schools earlier this month.

Montello is one of four Wisconsin school districts that’s featured in the institute’s 10-page magazine — the district singled out for its efforts to engage students and equip them with the knowledge to make their own healthy choices.

“We’re very pleased about it because we think this is part of a larger story of all the great work that’s happening in the Montello School District,” Superintendent Margaret Banker said of the magazine article.

Positive momentum in wellness started with the hiring of Monroe in January 2018 and her establishment of the school garden a few months later, Banker said.

Each year, nearly half of Montello’s 750 students participate in the district’s summer programming, which now involves the planting, harvesting and cooking of fresh foods.

The garden holds herbs, tomatoes, green beans, snap peas, leafy greens and more.

“I grew up with parents who had a huge garden,” Monroe said in an email regarding her idea for the garden and summer cooking classes. “They taught me the importance of fresh vegetables — how affordable it is to grow them yourselves and how to preserve your harvest to enjoy it year-round.”

Culinary highlights of her cooking class, she said, included overnight refrigerator pickles, pan seared radishes, Parmesan-roasted kohlrabi and pizzas using summer squash and zucchini as the crust.

“We live in a rural community where farming is a way of life,” Monroe said of the district’s wellness imitative that also involves, for the first time, healthy snacks being available in Montello classrooms every day. “(It’s) teaching students how easy, affordable and rewarding it is to have healthy choices.”

Montello school staff discusses their own wellness on every Wednesday, at times practicing yoga, mindfulness and basic fitness, Banker said.

Monroe is a 2002 Montello High School graduate who spent four years as a sous chef at Capitol Lakes Retirement Center in Madison and five years as dietary supervisor with Divine Savior Healthcare.

Menu changes are simple but fresh, said Monroe, who wants to show students “that a simple hamburger on a whole grain bun with the option to make a beautiful side salad is a great meal.”

She said that teaching students about nutrition is really about “setting them up to succeed in life.”

“I think that wellness is often overlooked,” Monroe said. “We want everything easy and we want it now. We live in a world where everything is super-sized and made for convenience. You don’t have to leave your house to go shopping and you can order in your groceries.

“I know what hard work and dedication it takes to grow a garden and preserve the harvest,” she said. “I also know that living a simple healthy lifestyle is rewarding and fulfilling. It is so important to me to teach the students where their food comes from and the work it takes to get it to their kitchen table.

“I hope that the students take away how simple wellness and cooking can be.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.

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